The Possible City: Exercises in Dreaming Philadelphia
Camino Books, 2008
“Philadelphia without revolution, industry, or influence,” says author Nathaniel Popkin, “lives on by invention.” The Possible City, the title of his new book, emerges from our dreams. Here, in the loving hand of the city planner-turned-writer, is the architecture of Philadelphia’s present resurgence. Here are the city’s beguiling founding ideals, the physical ruins of its might, and the search, amidst row house streets, for elevation, for an open city that delights, inspires, and rewards.
In the search for openness, Popkin encounters Philadelphia’s defensive pride, its instinct to protect, its fear of further loss. As a response, he posits a new framework for cities everywhere. No longer is it enough for a city merely to function. To elevate civilization, instead a city must perform––it must build, create, invent.
In the final analysis, then, it isn’t dreaming that best characterizes Philadelphia but rather doing. Intrinsic to this effort are artists, those whose work transforms—and is transformed by—the cityscape all around. This act of transformation, a kind of performance, is telling of the city’s power and is, Popkin says, precisely what cities have to do.
A city that functions provides shelter, transportation, common ground for the production of culture and commerce. But a city that performs also wows us, inspires, entertains, dazzles, and raises the specter of our consciousness. It is comforting and challenging, open and particular; it makes human life not just possible but extraordinary.
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